While I appreciate elegant simplicity, I can also sink my teeth into an intriguing web of complexity. Complexity here should not be equated with ‘complicated’. When something is complicated, it confronts us with a mass of disparate information without any evident patterns, while a complex subject’s diversity exists in a state of orderly interconnection, especially one that possesses an active behavior of probability that wouldn’t settle into a state of inertia. While I see tarot as such a system, something nearly always brings me a sense of disappointment when the cards are placed in a static spread configuration with set positional meanings. It’s a bit like looking like a dead butterfly pinned to a flat board when you could be watching it flitting about in its habitat, alive and vital. For me, the Opening of the Key is that live butterfly, one you can observe through its entire life cycle.
For those unfamiliar with the Opening of the Key, it is a leviathan of a tarot divination method developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society of ceremonial magic that featured a membership of influential heavyweights such as Arthur Edward Waite, S.L. MacGregor Mathers and Aleister Crowley. The method itself is a massive five-stage-Saturn-V-rocket of a reading rooted in Hermetic Qabalistic principals, the entire proceeding usually taking a few hours to complete (though some may maintain it takes days). I won’t even consider displacing this article with the details, but will instead let Israel Regardie explain it himself in The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, Vol. 9 (beginning on p. 30). I simply wish to speak about my own personal experience of the method.
I found three aspects of the Opening of the Key to be particularly inspirational to me as a reader. The first is the use of a significator, or a card that represents the querent. Even before being exposed to OOTK, I had recognized the significator’s usefulness as a “GPS tracker” for pertinent information relating directly to the querent and used it regularly with consistent success. Another factor that appealed to my approach was elemental dignities, which in a nutshell are the dynamics between the classical elements that are either beneficial, neutral or antagonistic. I have since adopted this method as an alternative to reading ‘reversed’ cards, a technique I never quite got used to. So, if I found the significator nestled between the Empress and the 6 of Wands, that goal the querent has been patiently moving toward will likely be reached, although no miraculous strokes of fortune should be expected.
A third and less quantifiable facet of OOTK is that with some exceptions, there are no real fixed positional meanings, and even those exceptions are broad themes rather than specific categories. While some readers might find this challenging, what eventually struck me was the inherent freedom in this approach to arrive at meaning by inference, as the cards themselves determine the position’s significance. Here was the point in which the butterfly truly comes to life, where skills in deduction and intuition are both being called upon to pull order from the aether. Through this technique a narrative emerges without being bogged down by a checklist of compartments, every bit of information organically building off another. One way to look at it is as an advanced version of Scrabble, working with visual symbols rather than letters and generating constellations of poetic phrasing instead of mere words.
More peculiar bits of the OOTK include the counting and pairing of the cards. The counting technique seems arbitrary at first, the numeric values of the cards determined by arcane factors, but the effect this has is what I surmise to be the “Key” aspect of the reading. As the counting progresses, the process reveals itself to be like working out a combination number or inserting a key into a lock, opening some positions while leaving others. A subset of the symbolic information stream emerges, like you’ve just gained authorized access to sensitive material. As the pairing process goes, I liken it to the “Fold-In” pages of Mad Magazine, where a complex illustration is folded in on itself to reveal another image that suggests an additional perspective. This is in effect what happens in the reading: another angle appears by recombining elements of the larger picture, and often in both a metaphorical and literal sense, ties up loose ends.
The Opening of the Key consists of five distinct sections, or “operations”. I discovered that the First Operation alone is extremely adaptable. It can easily be performed on its own as a stand-alone 30-minute reading, being able to sift out an array of key points. The opening “Tetragrammaton” technique has been a godsend in addressing general readings as it covers all the bases, and is particularly useful in pinpointing pressing concerns. If their significator turns up in the first Hé pack, for example, it would indicate their focus is on a relationship, or they are being affected by the matter primarily on an emotional level. I could also truncate the operation further by zeroing in on just the two cards flanking the significator rather than fanning out the entire stack, making it an effective 10-minute reading, and with a bit of imagination (and some Qabalistic cross-checking) convert it into a timeline interpretation, each stack representing successive temporal spans.
The subsequent operations of the Opening of the Key are what their subtitles suggest: development and further development of the question. If the Second and Third Operations look familiar to some readers, they bear a distinct resemblance to a circular twelve-card astrological reading that addresses the querent’s experience in specific aspects of life as governed by the houses and signs. The Fourth Operation expands on this structure by subdividing each sign into their three decans, presenting itself as an intimidating 36-card circle, but nonetheless acts an electron microscope scrutinizing even finer grist for the mill. I have also encountered a ten-card spread based on the Qabalistic Tree of Life (which I occasionally use), each position based on the Tree’s ten sephirah, which by peculiar coincidence is the structure the Fifth Operation. Being as the OOTK was developed around the beginning of the 20th century, I can’t help but wonder if it was the source of inspiration for these spreads.
Since my exposure to this method, I’ve used it almost exclusively and have even developed a personalized variation of it which has yielded successful results. Every so often I revert to a 15-card spread (said to have also originated in the Golden Dawn, though that claim is in dispute), but the Opening of the Key still draws me back with its fascinating potential. I suspect I’ve only just started to unlock its many hidden codes.